The Nation's Pulse

Business Needs a Backbone

The Human Rights Watch should not have the last word on Wal-Mart's labor practices.

By 5.21.07

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Human Rights Watch wants a kinder, gentler Wal-Mart. In a recently released 210-page report, it takes the giant retailer to the woodshed for its "sophisticated and determined strategy to prevent union activity at its US stores," concluding that while Wal-Mart's tactics "largely comport with US law...many workers fear expressing pro-union views or even questioning Wal-Mart's anti-union bias."

Oh my. Wal-Mart doesn't want to be unionized so it's fighting back. And it has the audacity to be "aggressive," whereas Human Rights Watch prefers that company management "remain neutral during union organizing campaigns." That sounds fair: union leaders organize and Wal-Mart does nothing.

Given that I have no client in the long-running Wal-Mart wars, my issue is not whether the union organizing campaign prevails or fails. Rather, it is a rejection of what's really at the core of the Human Rights Watch report and many others like it -- the belief that it is immoral for businesses to defend themselves. The intent of the report is less to reveal alleged Wal-Mart abuses than it is to shame the company into submission. Its premise is the illegitimacy of assertive self-interest when exercised by a large, profitable enterprise.

I hope Wal-Mart continues to fight back, because far too many large companies today crumble at the slightest hint of agenda-driven controversy. It is easy to see why. Anti-corporate activism, ironically, has become big business. Foundations, so-called non-governmental organizations, unions and trial attorneys collectively have literally billions of dollars in assets to apply to -- and gain from -- corporate pressure campaigns. The power struggles between big companies and their detractors are no longer David versus Goliath, they are Goliath versus Goliath. Very few CEOs today have the stomach, or the support of their boards, to commit their companies to fighting costly wars of attrition with such well-resourced critics. Wal-Mart is the exception in that has both the stomach and pocketbook to mount a counter-offensive.

Of course, not all companies are innocent as charged and not all pressure campaigns are baseless. But neither should large companies allow themselves to become pinatas simply because the easiest way out is capitulation. In today's scandal-driven environment silence equals guilt. Playing defense is for losers. It is eat or be eaten. Yes, you stick to the facts and you play by the rules. But as one park ranger once advised, "The first rule of survival is to never look like food." And a lot of companies today are looking like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

My advice for businesses under fire is, first, to distinguish between a whoops-we-made-a-mistake crisis and an agenda-driven attack. A crisis requires that you fix the problem and communicate effectively; an attack calls for a robust counter-initiative.

Second, don't automatically assign the challenge to your public relations department. Brilliant as they may be at driving up your positives, most PR people can't get their heads around the notion that not everyone is a "stakeholder" and the answer is not always more "outreach." The most applicable discipline in these situations is electoral politics, not PR.

Third, mobilize your base. Businesses today tend to spend all of their time appeasing their critics and virtually none nurturing their supporters -- the groups and individuals who believe in free markets, consumer choice, and technological progress.

At the end of the day, not all corporate-critics deserve their perch on the moral high-ground, and not all businesses are in need of a sound public flogging. But unless more of them stand up to their critics the way Wal-Mart does, the marketplace of ideas becomes very one-sided. And whose interest does that really serve?

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About the Author

John Weber is the president of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington-based crisis management firm. He is co-author with Eric Dezenhall of the new book, Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.